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Issue #127 - March 2006

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Politics in Fantasy Redux

By R. Scott Bakker

I should make clear from the outset that Iíve never read any of Jeff VanderMeerís fiction, something for which Iíve been upbraided more than a few times. Since the calluses have become rather thick, please feel free to berate me some more. I need to read VanderMeerís work, if only because it seems we might be up to the same literary mischief. All that concerns me here is his recent essay, "Politics in Fantasy." What concerns me in particular is the following passage:


Now, after stating all of this, you may realize I havenít yet answered the question I posed before: Is it important for fantasy, or fiction generally, to be relevant in this way? The answer is a resounding, No, it isnít. The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Artís sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics ó thatís all valid.


For me, this is where VanderMeerís horse takes a tumble ó and in the final stretch no less. There I was in the stands cheering him on, then suddenly Iím staring at my ticket in disbelief. How, after spending the bulk of his article flogging the inevitability of politics in fantasy, could he suddenly pull up short and declare otherwise? And in a resounding fashion, no less!

First, we should probably make sure weíre all on the same page. Far too much debate trades in misinterpretations, so itís always a good rule of thumb to make sure youíre reading someone as charitably as possible. Thereís nothing quite so embarrassing as critiquing a caricature of someoneís position, since in a sense, all youíre doing is making fun of your own inability to read. So let me quote the passage that had me betting on VanderMeerís horse in the first place:


But "politics" in fiction is not just about using a backdrop of war or atrocity or city dynamics at the macro level to explore questions that affect us in a longer-term, broad way. It is also about understanding that all people are political in some way, even those who seem apathetic, because politics is about gender, society, and culture. Every aspect of our lives is in some way political. So if we donít, at some point during our writing, think about this consciously ó if we simply trust our instincts as writers ó we may unintentionally preserve cliché, stereotype, and prejudice.


It seems pretty clear that VanderMeer is indeed arguing the inevitability of politics, not just in fantasy, but in writing period. The choice is yours: either your writing is unconsciously political through and through, or your writing is consciously political as well. Pick your poison. But if every aspect of our lives is political in some way, and "truths" are one of those aspects, doesnít that mean, contrary to VanderMeerís resounding assertion, that no truths transcend politics? Isnít VanderMeer trying to eat his cake and have it too?

Sure he is. The important question to ask is why.

When you teach something like Popular Culture, as I did not so very long ago, the first thing you need to overcome is the common intuition that most commercial cultural products are examples of a magical thing called "Entertainment Pure and Simple" ó what is essentially the mass market version of "Art for Artís Sake." For instance, how could Professional Wrestling or Andromeda or Hockey or American Idol 5 possess a complicated political subtext? Surely these harmless pastimes are "simple," unblemished by the political mire we see on the nightly News.

Well, if you think anything is simple, youíre the victim of an out and out illusion. If you disagree with me, a good way to test your intuition is to go to a local university and enroll in as many courses as you can. Or simply go the library, or do a web search. Everything is more complicated than it seems, trust me. The only thing that makes anything seem "simple" is the limitations of our particular perspective. We literally canít see what lies outside our point of view, and we all share the bad habit of assuming that what we canít see either doesnít exist or doesnít matter. Thatís why we once thought the Earth was the motionless centre of the universe. Thatís why we need reminders like, "Thereís always more than what meets the eye." Ignorance is invisible: what we donít know simply doesnít exist for us. Only those things that fall within the narrow circle of our experience can matter, which is why the coolest toy, country, pet, god, and so on, usually happens to be the one we want or believe in or already own.

This is even more the case when the apparent simplicity at stake involves meaning. In my Popular Culture classes, I would always give the example of a man holding a gun in a convenience store. "So what is this guy?" I would ask. The resounding answer would be, "An armed robber!"

"But heís wearing a uniform," I would say.

"Oh, heís a cop!" my students would reply.

"But thereís a Brinks truck parked out front."

"Then heís a security guard!"

"But thereís a camera crew down aisle 3."

"Ooh, heís an actor!"

"But thereís a Newschannel 5 van parked behind the Brinkís truck."

"Then he is a security guard after all, being filmed for the news!"

"But thereís a man in his underwear taped and gagged in the back of the Brinkís truck."

At this point they would begin throwing up their hands. "Then he is an armed robber!"

"But thereísĖ"

"Shut the hell up, Mr. Bakker, we get it!"

The point, of course, is that meaning is powerfully conditioned by context. Ask yourself, what will your so-called "obvious truths" mean to your descendants in 1,000 years? How about 10,000? Like it or not, everything we say or write is pitched against a potentially infinite horizon of contexts, the vast majority of which donít seem to exist. This is why the greatest geniuses of 10,000 years ago couldnít even imagine the bulk of what we now take for granted. And this is why questions are so much more powerful than answers, why they can muddy things that otherwise seem "pure and simple" in the span of a few short seconds. Questions force us to take a step sideways, to reconsider our perspective. Questions make our ignorance visible, which is to say, they reference contexts ó perspectives ó that didnít seem to exist simply because we couldnít see them.

(And this, by the way, is why so many traditional belief systems tend to discourage questioning: certainty tends to depend on ignorance).

Entertainment Pure and Simple is an illusion leveraged by ignorance of different perspectives. The tropes, attitudes, homilies, even the stylistic techniques that comprise the content of what you see, hear, and read only strike you as obvious and natural because youíve been raised in their unquestioning bosom. Thereís always more than what meets the eye, and a good part of that "more" is political through and through. This is especially true of fiction. Narratives are about human interaction, about people trying to solve the riddles of desire and obligation and circumstance that bedevil us all ó just like politics. The choices the protagonist makes are always political choices, insofar as they turn on the same network of assumptions that underwrite our daily lives. And insofar as pretty much everything you do in your daily life possesses social origins and social consequences, nearly every choice you make is a political choice as well. We are, despite the assumptions of so very many, the most interdependent generation in the history of the human race. Think of the collective hands that made your shoes, your soup, your roof and your real-time strategy game. Think of the collective thoughts that speak with your voice. Our very existence depends upon a vast system of social relationships. We can scarcely make a move without making some ineluctable impact. And like every civilization that has come before us, we use songs and sports and stories ó entertainment ó to conserve that systemís structure and function.

If this strikes you as outlandish or impossible, youíre literally stuck in your perspective ó youíre just not asking the right questions. And if asking such questions seems to make an uncertain mess of things, itís because thatís how things are, an uncertain mess, no matter how much our innate tendencies to over-commit and to over-simplify dupe us into thinking otherwise. Culture is soupy, and the delicious bits of fantasy floating around in it soak up the political broth just like everything else. Itís when people think their views, their truths, magically rise above the soup ó that things are racially, politically, economically, or theologically simple ó that the problems typically begin.

So why did VanderMeer pull his horse up short so close to the finish line? Why does a part of him remain stuck in his teenage perspective believing that some truths do transcend politics, that something, anything, can be for its own sake?

He ran out of questions.

At least thatís one way of looking at it.

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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